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French Ecocriticism

From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century


Edited By Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

This book expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States examine the work of writers and thinkers including Michel de Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Simondon, Michel Serres, Michel Houellebecq, and Éric Chevillard. The diverse approaches in the volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, under the aegis of the environmental humanities.

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Towards an Ecopoetics of French Free Verse: Marie Krysinska’s Rythmes pittoresques (David E. Evans)

← 114 | 115 →

David E. Evans

Towards an Ecopoetics of French Free Verse: Marie Krysinska’s Rythmes pittoresques

Abstract: This chapter examines the potential of vers libre, a radical new departure for French poetry in the 1880s, to provide a model for ecopoetic reading that allows the poetic text and its representations of nature to resist conventional, familiar modes of interpretation. While the natural world is a constant presence in French poetry throughout the nineteenth century, until the 1880s it is subsumed within an artificial, regular and highly codified metrical structure. The authority of such a restrictive form gradually wanes in the face of social, political and artistic factors specific to France, namely the crisis of absolute authority that befalls the country after revolution. Poems in free verse reflect this instability, since they come with no pre-existing, distorting metrical lens. They require the reader to construct patterns of meaning while reading – each of which is unstable, none of which is able to claim absolute authority. Nature features prominently in these texts, and my examination of the representation of nature in key works by Marie Krysinska (1857–1908) posits that the poetics of French free verse makes nature and the text itself into a site of resistance to measurement and commoditisation. Such resistance is a recurrent theme of recent ecocriticism, and poetic strategies particular to the French context have a significant contribution to make to ecocritical modes of reading.

In a recent essay on the practice of poetry readings since the 1950s, Abigail Lang highlights the stark contrast between the approaches taken in France and the USA. The North American tradition, she argues, has its roots firmly in beatnik counter-culture, with an emphasis on sociopolitical engagement, whereas poets in 1970s France, such as Jacques Roubaud and Claude Royet-Journoud, strove in their readings to present the poem as independent of context. While their transatlantic cousins railed against inequalities and injustices, notably the Vietnam war, French poets were trying to distance language from blunt messages and explicit reference, or as Lang puts it, attempting to ‘dire sans vouloir dire [to speak, not to say]’.1 In the same volume, Roubaud rails against ‘la domination du narratif, de l’exclamation éthique, limitée aux thèmes reconnus par CNN [the dominance ← 115 | 116 → of narrative, of ethical exclamation, limited to themes recognised by CNN]’ in readings at international poetry festivals:

Vous pouvez dire tout ce que vous voulez de féministe, de multiculturel, d’antiraciste, d’anti-bombes anti-personnel, vous pouvez tchernobyler à qui mieux mieux, bêler sur la paix et votre grand-mère, pourvu que vous ne puissiez pas être soupçonné de pratiquer des ‘jeux formels’, ou de parler ‘difficile’, ce qui serait ‘élitiste’, non ‘démocratique’ et vraisemblablement une atteinte aux droits de l’homme et une insulte aux ONGs.2

[You can say anything you please as long as it’s feminist, multicultural, anti-racist, anti-bomb, you can Chernobylise all you like, bleat about peace and your grandmother, as long as you can’t be suspected of playing “formal games”, or of talking “difficult”, which would be “elitist”, not “democratic” and probably a contravention of human rights and an insult to NGOs.]

In this light, it is little wonder that a certain brand of French theory was identified by early anglophone ecocritics as inimical to their cause. Since, according to the caricatural portrait of structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction, there is nothing outside the text, this mode of French criticism might appear to deny the existence of a world beyond the page on which language might be able to have an effect – hardly a propitious starting point for an environmental-critical movement concerned with responding to an urgent sense of measurable, and very real, ecological catastrophe.3 Instead of articulating a political message expressed by a subject locatable in time, space and culture, French poetry in the grand tradition of Mallarmé and Valéry appears incompatible with subjectivities and individualities, instead devoting itself to the lofty notion of absolute poetry. Ruminating on the ideal reading performance, Jean-François Puff asks ‘comment neutraliser dans la voix ce que la voix porte nécessairement de subjectivité? [how to neutralise in the voice what subjectivity the voice necessarily carries?]’,4 a question that hardly seems conducive to a politically engaged environmental message. If French poetry appears concerned first and foremost with abstract questions of language, with the search for ‘une manière de le laisser parler pour lui-même de lui-même sans référence à rien [a way of letting language speak for itself of itself without reference to anything]’,5 might it be a fruitless enterprise to speak of a French ecopoetics? ← 116 | 117 →

There are ways, though, in which a specifically French mode of writing and reading, while not articulating an explicit environmental message, can contribute to the ecocritical project by heightening our awareness of both the natural world and the world of the text, as well as the analytical, affective, even embodied responses that we bring to them as dwelling and interpreting subjects. As Clive Scott argues in an article proposing a poetics of eco-translation, ‘reading is in itself an ecological activity, is living-in-an-environment, where environment is to be understood as the continuous texturing of the life-dynamic and thus something which fully incorporates ecologies of all kinds, and of all kinds of perceptual/conceptual contact’.6 Nineteenth-century French poetry provides a unique textual landscape for such an understanding of reading, since the profound changes it undergoes between the publication of Lamartine’s Méditations poétiques [Poetic Meditations] (1820) and Mallarmé’s radical constellation-poem ‘Un coup de dés [A Roll of the Dice]’ (1897) are unparalleled in any other century. These changes take place against the seismic social, political, economic and cultural shifts of the industrial revolution, to which our contemporary environmental concerns may be traced. It is thus possible to read in these texts’ multiple hesitations between tradition and innovation a poetic enacting of environmental anxieties, both extra- and intra-textual, of our relationship with it and our duty towards it. In her survey of ecocriticism, Pippa Marland suggests:

Perhaps the time has now come for a reinvigoration of slow and close reading, which, whether in the hope of generating environmental praxis or in a more purely investigative mode, applies these new paradigms in full-length engagements with cultural forms, interrogating from every possible angle the ‘imagings’ that reflect and influence our ongoing modes of being in the world.7

French free verse, which presents the reader with particular problems of interpretation that are culturally specific to the French context, might offer a productive model for such a ‘slow reading’. Emerging towards the end of the nineteenth century, free verse was presented by its ardent supporters as a break from past modes of textual experience that had become dulled, habitual, mechanical and repetitive. It promised new ways of seeing, feeling, writing and reading, yet it could not help but maintain an open and frequently uneasy dialogue with past frameworks for inscribing our experience of the world in text. I will focus on a book that remained largely ignored until a recent surge of interest in nineteenth-century female poets: ← 117 | 118 → Rythmes pittoresques [Picturesque Rhythms] (1890), the first collection of poems by Marie Krysinska, a pioneer of vers libre who was sidelined by the self-appointed theorists of the form such as Gustave Kahn and Jean Moréas.

In his overview of vers libre, Michel Murat pays Krysinska almost no attention at all, minimising her importance and omitting her from a timeline running from Rimbaud’s ‘Marine’ and ‘Mouvement’ (1873–5), via Laforgue’s Derniers vers (1887) and Kahn’s Palais nomades (1887), to Apollinaire’s prose-to-verse découpage ‘La Maison des morts’ (1913).8 There is no doubt, though, that Krysinska, who published poems in vers libre as early as 1882, well before Kahn and Laforgue, was an innovator who challenged the conventional modes of perception characteristic of regular poetic form. While the natural world is a constant presence in French poetry throughout the nineteenth century, it is subject to an artificial and highly codified metrical structure through which it can only appear as a rarefied cultural artefact. Poems in free verse, however, come with no pre-existing metrical lens – they require the reader to construct patterns of meaning with every reading, each of which will be unstable, fragile, unable to claim absolute authority. As J.-H. Rosny argues in the preface to the first edition of Rythmes pittoresques (1890):

Les cygnes, les lys, les papillons et les roses, les rossignols et les étoiles, les grands souffles de l’alexandrin, la jolie ciselure du sonnet, la grâce de la ballade, tout cela apparaît tellement fatigué en face de la merveilleuse jeunesse de la prose.

[…] Notre génération ne perd donc pas son temps lorsqu’elle détruit les vieux systèmes, lorsqu’elle s’efforce de transformer l’emploi de la rime, de la cadence, du nombre ou de la forme, lorsqu’elle établit de frais dispositifs capables de remplacer les splendeurs surannées des types où s’imprimaient l’ode et la chanson, l’épopée et l’élégie, le conte et la satire…9

[Swans, lilies, butterflies and roses, nightingales and stars, the pomp of the alexandrine, the pretty sculpture of the sonnet, the grace of the ballad, that all seems so tired in the face of the marvellous youth of prose.

[…] Our generation is thus not wasting its time in destroying the old systems, in striving to transform the use of rhyme, of cadence, of metre or form, in establishing fresh systems capable of replacing the outdated splendours of forms in which were printed ode and song, epic and elegy, tale and satire.]

Rosny reflects a widespread fatigue with the tired clichés and the fixed forms of nature poetry – forms such as the sonnet and the ballade, defined by their rhyme scheme, in which natural phenomena unfailingly find themselves shackled to the ← 118 | 119 → same limited vocabulary, with a predictable set of associations: onde / profonde / sonde / monde [waters / deep / fathom / world]; murmure / nature / obscure [murmur / nature / obscure]; écorce / force [bark / strength]; branche / penche [branch / hang]; vague / vague [wave / vague]; mer / amer [sea / bitter]; étoile / voile [star / veil]; terre / mystère [earth / mystery]; cieux / yeux [skies / eyes]; amour / jour [love / light]; infinie / harmonie [infinite / harmony]. Since the nouns, verbs and adjectives that happen to rhyme with nature-words in French perpetuate a fixed interpretation of nature as intimately bound to human emotions and preoccupations, framed by an aestheticising gaze with a penchant for mysticism, vers libre offers a ‘frais dispositif’ for reading and writing the world.

Krysinska takes this line in the preface to her second collection, Joies errantes [Errant Joys] (1894), strategically subtitled Nouveaux rythmes pittoresques [New Picturesque Rhythms], in which she argues for the value of ‘le dispositif inattendu [the unexpected system]’ because ‘telle pièce traduisant quelque capricieux coin de nature, ou quelque anxieux état de rêve, perdrait toute son intensité à être enfermée dans un cadre régulier – alors que d’autres sujets appellent à eux les rigides architectures du vers [any piece translating some capricious corner of nature, or some anxious dream state, would lose all its intensity by being enclosed in a regular frame – while other subjects call for the rigid architectures of verse]’.10 Krysinska’s use of traduire suggests a vision of the natural world as a coherent sign-system – unstable and shifting (‘capricieux’), perhaps, but ripe for interpretation. On several occasions she refers to a mysterious language in nature, to which only certain souls are receptive, as in ‘Symphonie en gris [Symphony in Grey]’:

Du sol consterné monte une rumeur étrange, surhumaine.

Cabalistique langage entendu seulement

Des âmes attentives.(9–11)11

[From the distressed ground rises a strange, superhuman murmur.

Cabalistic language heard only

By attentive souls.]

The rustling of the wind in the leaves produces the same effect in both ‘Le Hibou [The Owl]’ – ‘Les grands arbres balancent leurs têtes chevelues, chuchotant d’obscures paroles [The great trees nod their shaggy heads, whispering obscure words]’ (10–11) – and ‘Ballade [Ballad]’ – ‘Et le feuillage qui chuchote ← 119 | 120 → mystérieusement et perfidement quand approche la nuit apaisante [And the foliage whispering mysteriously and treacherously when the soothing night approaches]’ (38).12 Although ecological thought today argues for a reconnection with, and revalorisation of, the natural world, this notion of a hidden language in nature is hardly a ‘frais dispositif’. It is one of the oldest clichés of Romantic poetry, a favourite theme of Victor Hugo, and the ‘obscures paroles’ proffered by Krysinska’s trees echo Baudelaire’s ‘Correspondances’, the poem that perhaps more than any other influenced the Symbolists’ mystification of the natural world:

La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers

Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles(1–2)13

[Nature is a temple where living pillars

Sometimes emit confused words]

While the form may be innovative, then, the vision of nature found in Rythmes pittoresques is not new. Rather, it features topoi familiar from almost any book of nineteenth-century nature poetry: a sense of potential transcendence expressed through a vague mysticism or sense of the divine (‘Et le crépuscule monte de la terre – | Comme une vapeur d’encens | Monte de l’encensoir [And twilight rises from the earth | As a cloud of incense | Rises from the censer]’ (‘Le Calvaire [The Cross]’, 24–6));14 an irrepressible anthropomorphism (‘Et les aimables lianes | Prennent dans leurs bras amoureux | Les torses des puissants chênes [And the pleasant creepers | Take in their loving arms | The torsos of the powerful oaks]’ (‘La Source [The Spring]’, 37–9));15 and an insistence on the music of nature (‘Et les rythmes et les parfums se confondront en une subtile et unique symphonie [And the rhythms and the perfumes will mingle in a subtle and unique symphony]’ (‘Symphonie des parfums [Symphony of Perfumes]’, 9)).16 We might read these topoi of nineteenth-century French poetry ecocritically – they certainly represent an attempt to re-enchant our relationship with a natural world reduced by industrialisation and urbanisation to a source of raw materials, or to a picturesque, nostalgic refuge. In the preface to Intermèdes, Krysinska claims that her first vers libre poems were ‘la réaction contre le naturalisme versifié de 1881–82 [a reaction ← 120 | 121 → against the versified naturalism of 1881–82]’,17 yet by the time of the appearance of these poems in 1890, such motifs are as tired as the swans, the lilies and the nightingales that Rosny dismisses in his preface as cultural clichés that perpetuate an artificial vision of the natural world – a reverent vision, certainly, but one doomed to keep nature enframed, static, sterile. How, then, might Rythmes pittoresques be read as a ‘frais dispositif’ with the potential to shape ecocritical reading strategies?

One answer, I would suggest, lies in the form. While the content of these poems might seem overly familiar, retrograde even, the great theoretical debate that preoccupied the vers libre poets concerned not the content, but formal features, namely the notoriously slippery concept which defines French poetry perhaps more than any other: rhythm. In his review, Dubus declares: ‘on a voulu, le titre en est un sûr témoignage, que le rythme régnât ici en maître absolu. En tyran! diraient, non sans quelque raison, les partisans des formes classiques de la poésie française [as the title surely attests, the author intended rhythm to reign here as supreme ruler. The supporters of the classical forms of French poetry would say, not without some justification, “As a tyrant!”]’.18 It is precisely the defenders of traditional, regular forms that Krysinska takes to task in her preface to Intermèdes in the name of ‘cette évolution constante dans les formes poétiques [this constant evolution of poetic forms]’.19 Instead of the ‘intolérable monotonie’ of regular alexandrines preferred by Sully-Prudhomme, a staunch critic of vers libre, Krysinska demands variety: ‘la nouvelle profession de foi poétique peut se formuler ainsi: confiance plus ouvertement avouée dans les vertus de la variété et du pittoresque par conséquent, coupes alternantes librement et selon le besoin de la précision styliste [this latest profession of poetic faith can be summed up thus : confidence more openly expressed in the virtues of variety and picturesque, and thus rhythmic freedom as dictated by stylistic precision]’.20 Since the term pittoresque also features in the title, it is worth pondering: while the word is commonly applied to landscapes, to paintings, or to literary description, it is less obvious how a rhythm, non-semantic and non-representational, might be described as picturesque. How, or what, might a rhythm represent? In his Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, Pierre Larousse explores how the term pittoresque was applied to the representation of nature across the arts. In the seventeenth and eigtheenth centuries, he explains, literature was full of stifling codes which put nature in the background ← 121 | 122 → – ‘les règles et les conventions reléguèrent la nature au second plan; or c’est de la nature seule que le poète, comme le peintre, peut tirer les éléments du pittoresque [rules and conventions relegated nature to the background; whereas it is from nature alone that the poet, like the painter, can derive the elements of picturesque]’ –, whereas, in the nineteenth century, ‘c’est précisément chez les écrivains plus libres, plus vrais, plus naturels que les autres, qu’il faut en général chercher le pittoresques [it is precisely in writers who are freer, truer, more natural than others, that the picturesque is to be found]’.21 It is in this sense of freedom that Krysinska’s rhythms articulate the alluring unknowability of the natural world.

In the preface to Intermèdes, Krysinska asks ‘peut-on prétendre que le rythme obligé d’une marche militaire, soit un rythme préférable et supérieur à celui de tel capricieux ballet […] ou telle danse espagnole pleine de soubresauts nerveux et de fantaisie? [can we claim that the rigid rhythm of a military march be preferable and superior to that of some capricious ballad […] or some Spanish dance full of nervous jolts and flights of fancy?]’.22 The choice of adjectives is telling, with the totalitarian implications of ‘obligé’ contrasting with ‘capricieux’, which recalls her description of ‘telle pièce traduisant quelque capricieux coin de nature’. Examples of both kinds of rhythm are to be found in Rythmes pittoresques, and they enact the tension between constraining forms and irrepressible freedom, as in ‘Les Fenêtres [Windows]’. The poem describes ‘le Paris noctambule [the Parisian night]’ (24) with its ‘bruits de fêtes [sounds of parties]’ (35) until the streets empty again:

Puis l’heure silencieuse et froide vient éteindre lumières et bruits.

Seul le pas régulier d’un sergent de ville va et vient sur le trottoir sonore, sous

les fenêtres qui s’endorment comme des yeux lassés.(36–7)23

[Then the silent and cold hour comes to extinguish lights and sounds.

Only the regular step of a city guard comes and goes on the sonorous pavement,

beneath the windows which fall asleep like tired eyes.]

The only regular rhythm present in the whole volume is produced by this representative of the state, doing his rounds to ensure all is in order on the streets of the capital. The music played at the various soirées is of a different sort altogether: ‘Et sur la vitre qui est d’opale, on voit glisser des ombres fugitives, aux rythmes de musiques plus vagues que des souffles [And on the pane, which is of opal, fugitive shadows may be seen to glide, to the rhythms of music more vague than ← 122 | 123 → breath]’ (30).24 Whereas the regular rhythm of the ‘sergent de ville’ suggests order and conformity, the dancers glimpsed through the darkened windows are fleeting shadows, as if their identity were harder to grasp amid the rhythmic vagueness. Likewise, the ecopoetic dimension of Krysinska’s verse might be located in the ungraspable quality of her poetic rhythms, where shocks and jolts, echoes and surprises, ensure that our responses to the reading experience are as fresh and as challenging as our encounters with the natural world.

All other references to rhythm in Rythmes pittoresques articulate this unpredictability, this refusal to settle. In ‘Chanson d’automne [Autumn Song]’, ‘le vent, comme un épileptique, mène dans la cheminée l’hivernal orchestre [the wind, like an epileptic, leads into the hearth the wintry orchestra]’ (13),25 indicating a spasmodic movement that is a far cry from the footsteps of the ‘sergent de ville’, and illustrative of nature’s potential to wrong-foot us in our search for regular, predictable patterns. In ‘Le Démon de Racoczi’, a demon depicted in an etching produces a bewitching music on his violin:

La valse déchaînait son tournoyant délire.

Rythmée comme par des soupirs d’amour;

Chuchoteuse comme les flots,

Et aussi mélancolique qu’un adieu;

Désordonnée, incohérente, avec des éclats de cristal qu’on brise;

Essoufflée, rugissante comme une tempête;

Puis alanguie, lassée, s’apaisant dans une lueur de bleu lunaire. (33–45)26

[The waltz unleashed its whirling frenzy.

As if rhythmed by sighs of love;

Whispering like the waves,

And as melancholy as an adieu;

Disordered, incoherent, with noises like breaking crystal;

Breathless, roaring like the tempest;

Then languid, weary, subsiding in a lunar blue light.]

As in the case of the epileptic wind, these rhythms are disordered, incoherent, broken and their extreme states of frenzy and repose are compared to natural phenomena, namely moonlight and the tempest. A suite of eight poems entitled ‘Les Danses [The Dances]’ further develops this contrast, beginning with two relatively sober dances, the pavane and the minuet, both characterised by measured, ← 123 | 124 → tranquil rhythms – ‘Dansez la Pavane au rythme câlin [Dance the Pavane with its caressing rhythm]’ (‘La Pavane [The Pavane]’, 1; 18) – and:

Les galants paniers

Où éclosent

Des roses


Se bercent au rythme lent et mesuré

Du menuet.(‘Menuet’, 4–9)27

[The gallant baskets

Where embroidered



Sway to the slow and leisured rhythm

Of the minuet.]

As the dances become more exotic, the rhythms break loose, as in ‘Danse d’Espagne’, in which the tambourines suggest the ecstatic buzzing of bees:

Palpitantes guitares

Sur des rythmes barbares

Comme des gorges pâmées

Doucement sanglotez!


Les paumes frappent dans les paumes

Et les tambourins bourdonnent et sonnent

Comme des abeilles enivrées

Du sang des roses

Ollé!        (7–16)28

[Palpitating guitars

To barbarian rhythms

Like swooning bosoms

Sob gently!


The hands clap

And the tambourines buzz and sound

Like bees drunk

On the blood of roses

Olé!] ← 124 | 125 →

In ‘Danse d’Orient’, the dancers move ‘Sous le charme de quelque incantation vague [Charmed by some vague incantation]’ (16), a far cry from the steady rhythm of European ballroom dances, before the music becomes even less coherent:

Et tandis que harcelée par les miaulements

Rauques de la derbouka

Et stimulée

Par les

Nerveuses crotales,

La jupe de l’almée

Se gonfle d’air

Comme une voile

Sur la mer.(17–25)29

[And while harassed by the rough

Caterwauling of the derbouka

And spurred on

By the

Agitated vipers,

The dancer’s skirt

Fills with air

Like a sail

On the sea.]

Here the convulsions of the wild oriental music are replicated in the rhythms of the poem, with two cases of emphatic enjambement, the first building up to an awkward disyllabic rejet (‘miaulements | Rauques’) and the second separating a definite article from its noun (‘les | Nerveuses crotales’). Enjambement does not function in vers libre as it does in regular metrical verse – there is no predictable pulse that might be momentarily disrupted before the forward momentum of regularity is restored –, yet these examples disturb our reading of the text by introducing a kind of epileptic jolt, to use Krysinska’s term. As the poem draws to a close, we find three consecutive hexasyllabic units that call to mind the regular 6+6 rhythm of the alexandrine, reinforced by sibilance, before a pentasyllabic unit (‘en faisant couler’) breaks the anticipated regularity, and the rhythm disappears in the following nonasyllable with only the persistent [s] pattern providing an echo of what might have been: ← 125 | 126 →

Et songe que ce soir, / il pourra étancher6+6
Sa soif jalouse d’elle, / en faisant couler6+5
Son joli sang rouge sur ces seins9(29–31)30

Is that a dodecasyllable in the line ‘Sous le charme de quel/que incantati-on vague’, a broken alexandrine of the kind popularised by Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Verlaine in the 1860s and 1870s, itself a vague incantation? Taken on its own, it does not strike our ear as an alexandrine, but given the six-syllable fragments we find towards the end of the poem, we might be encouraged to scrutinise the textual landscape for other rhythmic signposts. As Scott suggests, the rhythm of free verse is ‘the instrument of restless, active relating, a mode of palpation of sense, of linguistic becoming’.31 It is the tentative negotiation of such patterns, at once familiar and unfamiliar, with which vers libre encourages us to grapple, that could provide the key to an ecocritical reading of the volume’s picturesque rhythms.

In her use of traditional metre, Krysinska operates a kind of rhythmic defamiliarisation that serves to heighten our senses in each encounter with the text. While line-lengths range from two syllables to over two dozen across the whole volume, giving the impression of freedom, of a ‘frais dispositif’, there are lines which strike the ear as strangely familiar, thanks to the eerie presence of what seems to be an alexandrine appearing out of the rhythmic haze:

Plus d’ardentes lueurs / sur le ciel alourdi(‘Symphonie en gris’, 1)
C’est l’Heure épanouie / comme une large Fleur (‘Midi’ III, 7)
Tout est miraculeux / dans ce Jardin de Joie(‘Eve’, 8)
Rouges comme des cœurs / et blancs comme des âmes(‘Eve’, l10)
Un merveilleux Serpent / à la bouche lascive(‘Eve’, 31)
Le ciel a revêtu / ses plus riches armures(‘Ariane’, 22)

The effect is even more compelling, sensual even, in the case of a palpable 3+3+3+3 pulse:

Et voici / que pareil / à un bras / amoureux(‘Eve’, 34)
Les muraill/es d’azur / qui support/ent son ciel.(‘Marie’, 7)
Et des pierr/es émane / une odeur / de tristesse(‘Magdelaine’, 3)
Où le ciel / attristé / semble prendr/e en ses bras (‘Midi’ III, 8)

In these lines, the natural imagery is enframed in a familiar rhythmic context that marks it as high art, artifice even, and the effect on the reader is reassuring, soothing. We are not obliged to read these isolated examples in vers libre poems as alexandrines, so their value is unstable to the extent that we are unsure ← 126 | 127 → what exactly they represent – as Murat observes, ‘le vers libre met en évidence la nécessité en même temps que l’indécidabilité du choix [free verse highlights the necessity, as well as the impossibility, of choosing]’.32 These fragments, while encouraging ever closer scrutiny, resist our interpretative gaze to the extent that we might wonder if they are there at all. Given that the book opens with a section entitled ‘Mirages’, perhaps this elusive shimmering effect is precisely the point: just as a quasi-alexandrine from ‘Naissance d’Aphrodite’ – ‘Et les reflets de l’eau / devenue radieuse’ (33) – is transformed six lines later into a 5+6 hendecasyllable, an imperfect reflection – ‘Les reflets du ciel / et de l’eau radieuse’ (39) –,33 the poems create a rhythmic mirage. Does the author intend such lines to be read as alexandrines? To expect an answer is to miss the point, for, as Seth Whidden points out, free verse performs ‘une constante remise en question […] de toute notion d’autorité [a constant questioning […] of all notions of authority]’.34 In the context of nineteenth-century France, when political as well as religious authority was consistently challenged, we might read this textual undecidability, this provocative questioning, as a way in which the poem and the natural world depicted in it resist utilitarian, one-dimensional and exploitative readings.

The contours of this rhythmic mirage, as the text flutters between the familiar and the unfamiliar, are further blurred by the inclusion of numerous lines reminiscent of the vers libéré, the alexandrine that is metrically destabilised by indivisible syntactic units around the caesura:

Où fermente le vin / noir des mélancolies(‘Eve’, 17)

By a monosyllabic preposition, or a counted feminine ‘e’ in sixth position, pre-caesura:

Du Dieu qui règne sur / les sublimes ivresses (‘Ariane’, 55)
Ainsi, le flot rose / d’un vin de Syracuse (‘Hélène’, 16)
La mer écumante / de sa révolte vaine (‘Marie’, 10)

By a counted feminine ‘e’ at seventh position, post-caesura:

Mais, voici reparaîtr/e la montagne – Reine (‘Midi’ III, 15)
Les branchages s’étoil/ent de fruits symboliques (‘Eve’, 9)
Coucha toutes les jeun/es et puissantes joies (‘Ariane’, 6) ← 127 | 128 →

By an uncounted feminine ‘e’ pre-caesura – the coupe épique familiar from medieval verse, but unsanctioned in the nineteenth century:

Et le Lotus august(e) / rêve aux règnes futurs(‘Eve’, 18)
Et vêtus d’ailes sombr(es) / comme les Trahisons (‘Eve’, 24)
O les nuits irréell(es), les merveilleuses nuits! (‘Ballade’, 18; 22)

Or, most tenuously of all – since the possibility of reading a quasi-alexandrine does not announce itself at a word boundary, and must be practically counted on the reader’s fingers – by a mid-word caesura:

Dans tous les chers et charm/eurs parfums d’autrefois (‘Symphonie des parfums’, 2)
Frémissent les papill/ons d’ombre saphirine (‘Ariane’, 19)
Celle qu’il devait aim/er d’un amour unique (‘Roman dans la lune’, 7)

Finally, what are we to make of the line from ‘Symphonie des parfums’ that looks like prose on the page – ‘Mes souvenirs chanteront sur des rythmes doux, et me berceront sans réveiller des regrets (3) –, but might be seen to conceal, if we peer closely enough, at least two dodecasyllables, if not two alexandrines:

Mes souvenirs chante/ront sur des rythmes doux,

et me berceront sans / réveiller des regrets.

None of these lines demand to be metrically read, but such hesitation lies at the heart of vers libre, a form in which, in Murat’s words – with a nod to Mallarmé – ‘chaque poème et même chaque vers y devient le moment d’un coup de dés où tout doit être réinventé [every poem, and even every line, becomes a roll of the dice where everything must be reinvented]’.35 As we look for patterns, as we measure and gauge, as we speculate and infer, our efforts to interpret the text rhythmically recreate the processes by which we create meanings for the world that are always unstable, fragmentary, conjectural. It is in this sense that Krysinska’s rhythms are picturesque: they do not paint a fixed picture of a rural idyll; they formally recreate the interpretative hesitations to which the world constantly makes us return.

Such hesitations become even more acute in lines of eleven or thirteen syllables that seem to push our reading towards the familiar, only to disappoint us. Although these lines are harder to spot, there is a precedent for both forms in poems from the pre-vers libre canon that compensate for the unstable rhythm with a constant caesura, such as Banville’s ‘Le Triomphe de Bacchos à son retour des Indes’ from Les Stalactites (5+8 throughout) and the fourth of Verlaine’s ‘Ariettes oubliées’ from Romances sans paroles (5+6 throughout). Krysinska’s 6+5 lines ← 128 | 129 → begin as if luring us into anticipating a satisfying alexandrine rhythm, only to confound us with a missing syllable:

Le long des boulevards / et le long des rues(‘Les Fenêtres’, 27)
Qui porte dans les plis / de son long manteau(‘Midi’ III, 16)
Et l’opaque fumée / de notre malice(‘Le Calvaire’, 11)
Où la Fée de la Nuit / mène sous la lune (‘La Reine des Neiges’, 43)

The 6+7 lines create similar confusion:

Un deuil cruel et cher / la possède pour jamais.(‘Magdelaine’, 10)
Et les oiseaux veilleurs / chantent l’immortel Amour (‘Nature morte’, 23)

More than once, Krysinska creates a curious mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar with the chiastic pattern 6+5 | 5+6 over consecutive lines:

Et, tandis que sa main / enfantine mêle
A ses beaux cheveux / les odorantes roses(‘Hélène’, 41–2)
L’air est plus opprimant / par ce soir d’orage
Dans le creux de roche / où Magdelaine pleure(‘Magdelaine’, 1–2)

A similar sense of unfulfilled rhythmic potential comes in lines beginning with two tetrasyllabic units that appear to announce a 4+4+4 alexandrine, only to have the third unit prove too short, or too long, by one syllable:

En vain rôdaient / autour de lui / leurs yeux ivres4+4+3
(‘Roman dans la lune’, 21)
Musc minuscule / et compliqué / comme une arabesque4+4+5
(‘Symphonie des parfums’, 17)

These familiar fragments force us to examine our reading habits, to question the pertinence of the interpretative framework that we bring to the text. In 1890, metrical verse in France still had decades left in it, and vers libre emerged after centuries of metrical conditioning. It is thus hardly surprising that we feel drawn towards the suggestion of regular rhythms – those rhythms through which nature had hitherto been expressed in poetry – as a means of guiding our response to the text. Yet the text encourages us to doubt our assumptions and question our habits: by identifying and classifying these rhythms, are we not doing an injustice to the complexity and the infinite diversity of the material?

Should our metrical framework, then, be seen as an artifice to be abandoned so that we might read unencumbered by tired habits? In order to preserve the salutary otherness of the natural world, should our rhythmic experience not also slip out of our grasp just at the point of seizing it? In ‘Métempsychose [Reincarnation]’, Krysinska imagines human souls returning to ‘la terre veuve | Où toute vie aura cessé [the widowed earth | Where all life has ended]’ (6–7) to examine the ruins ← 129 | 130 → of what they had built ‘Tandis que palpitait en eux la terrestre vie [While earthly life palpitated in them]’ (22).36 Life on earth, in which humans play an integral part, is thus characterised by rhythm, palpitation. While metrical rhythms may seem artificial, they respond to a fundamental rhythmic truth about the world and our relation to it – and yet that truth must remain elusive. As if to demonstrate this tension, Krysinska expresses that essential rhythm in a tantalising 6+7 line – ‘Tandis que palpitait / en eux la terrestre vie’ – that makes us anticipate the most traditional of alexandrines, before the metrical rhythm collapses with the one word that refuses to submit to the syllable count, ‘vie’ itself. This is especially noteworthy because the line would have been a perfect alexandrine if Krysinska had placed the adjective after the noun, as one might expect – Tandis que palpitait / en eux la vie terrestre. As such, this line articulates the quintessential picturesque rhythm, illustrating the endlessly elusive nature of life on earth through a carefully constructed rhythmic hesitation.

Enjambement also plays an important role in this rhythmic breaking and remaking, as indivisible units – compound nouns, preposition + noun, noun + adjective, article + noun – find themselves dislocated across two lines:

Contagieuse douleur | Des choses(‘Effet de soir’, 21–2)
aux bras enlaçants | D’amants… (‘Magdelaine’, 32–3)
des branches | D’arbres(‘La Reine des neiges’, 32–3)
les bûchers du Saint- | Office(‘La Pavane’, 19–20)
les âpres portes | Du Réel(‘Sonate’, 42–3)
Les bras le long | Du corps(‘La Gigue’, 32–3)
devers | Les mers(‘Midi’ I, 4–5)
devant | Les rides.(‘La Reine des neiges’, 6–7)
l’instant | Immortel(‘Sonate’, 40–1)
toute | Pleurante(‘Pleine mer’, 5–6)
Par les | Recors(‘La Gigue’, 18–19)

The effect is not the same as in isometric verse, since the presence of such disruptive pressure-points in vers libre asks different questions of the text. In metrical verse, enjambement might suggest a momentary rebellion against predictable form, but here the poet’s hands are not tied by any such obligation, and in several of these examples the transgressive words are isolated in blank space:

Balancent leurs fervents encensoirs


Des chères coupes des Iris(‘Eve’, 14–16)37 ← 130 | 131 →

[Swing their fervent censers


The dear heads of the Irises.]

For Scott, at such moments the page becomes ‘a particular typographical/topographical ecology, a certain distribution and dynamisation of language, a certain set of pathways, a psychogeography, no longer a surface for the eye to skate across, but a tabular location for the eye, the ear and the voice endlessly to explore and engage with’.38 From a rhythmic perspective, such ‘coupes’ (rhythmic breaks) are indeed ‘chères’ since they enact in verse our fundamental interpretative hesitations about the world, a simultaneous joining and breaking-apart. Krysinska also frequently achieves this with a disjunctive hyphen within a syntactic unit:

les boucliers des héros morts – resplendissaient au soleil(‘Pleine mer’, 12)
les jours clairs et monotones – d’enfance(‘Effet de soir’, 2)

This sense of deconstruction and reconstruction is vital to the negotiation between vers libre and traditional verse, and to the free-verse dramatisation of our interpretative encounter with the world. In ‘Javanaises’, emphatic enjambement such as ‘la folle | Vision’ (4–5) and ‘des chattes | Jaunes’ (8–9) accompanies the broken rhythms of the dance:

Tandis qu’en rythmes brisés,

Pleuvent des musiques farouches et subtiles.(14–15)39

[While in broken rhythms,

Wild and subtle musics rain down.]

Although the rhythm is dislocated, the poem creates formal patterns across the rhyme scheme, adhering not to traditional rhyming rules (such as no singular with plural, and no masculine with feminine), but to the transgressive principle of rhymes for the ear – ‘idoles / folle / symboles’ (1–5) and ‘graciles / avril / subtiles’ (11–15) – alongside a strong rime léonine ‘grisés / brisés’ (12–14). Rhyme is not banished from free verse, but the acoustic patterning in each poem is new and surprising, while encouraging our irrepressible sense of rhythm:


Et rythmiquement,

Avec une méthode d’enfer, ← 131 | 132 →

Les talons

Vont.(‘La Gigue’, 9–13)40


And rhythmically,

With a devil of a method,

The heels


Such rhythms are capricious, but extremely productive, as in the text-as-landscape metaphor that Krysinska offers in ‘Danse slave [Slavic Dance]’ by linking the fiddler’s rhythmic gesture with the hand which sows the seed:

Le ménétrier assis sur la table

Lance d’un geste large de semeur

Le rythme de la danse.(11–13)41

[The fiddler, sat on the table

With a wide sowing movement sets off

The rhythm of the dance.]

Thus we might see the rhythmic exuberance of Krysinska’s poems as generating new life within the text, at the point where nature and culture meet.

This essay took as its point of departure anglophone ecocritics’ dismissal of a strand of theory seen as particularly French. I hope to have suggested ways in which French free verse might provide a compelling model of ecocritical reading as an exciting, productive, and necessary encounter with otherness. Indeed, several critics found vers libre disconcerting on account of its foreignness: of Krysinska’s poems, Aurélien Scholl wrote in Le Matin that ‘on dirait des couplets traduits d’une langue étrangère, et où le traducteur ne met pas de rimes pour conserver la pensée intact [they resemble verses translated from a foreign language, the translator avoiding rhyme in order to preserve the meaning]’,42 while Philippe Gille of Le Figaro suggested that ‘on dirait d’une traduction d’un poème étranger, et l’œuvre de Mme Krysinska est pour l’oreille une nouvelle musique qui, pour n’être pas celle de notre vers français, possède cependant un charme pénétrant et incontestable [it seems to be the translation of a foreign poem, and Mme Krysinska’s work provides the ear with a new music which, while not that of our French verse, possesses nonetheless a penetrating and incontestable charm]’.43 For some, this hybridity was to be feared, with Catulle Mendès dismissing Peruvian poet Nicanor Della ← 132 | 133 → Rocca de Vergalo, author of Poëtique nouvelle,44 as ‘un excellent homme, un peu ridicule, féru, comme beaucoup d’étrangers, de transporter dans notre langue les règles prosodiques et même grammaticales de sa langue natale [an excellent fellow, slightly ridiculous, intent, like many foreigners, on importing into our language the prosodic and even the grammatical rules of his native language]’.45 There is one point, however, on which all sides agree: in Charles Maurras’s words, ‘les poètes ne sont point des superfluités ainsi que l’imaginent quelques hommes d’État, et, de toutes les lois, de tous les parlements, c’est encore le rythme qui nous fait le plus d’heur et d’honneur dans le monde [poets are not superfluous, as some statesmen might think, and, of all the laws, of all the parliaments, it is still rhythm which seals our greatest glory and honour in the world]’.46 It is this specifically French concept of poetic rhythm – the banner behind which poets of all convictions unite – that in free verse can reflect the diversity of the world and its ultimate unknowability, performing a kind of resistance to ownership that provides an answer to what Marland identifies as ‘the difficulty of speaking for the earth itself’.47 Such an ecocritical mode of reading provides a way of inhabiting the text as one inhabits the world, challenging us to reassess modes of dwelling and reading. Through the shocks, jolts, hesitations and temptations of the rhythmic experience, French free verse might provide a potent example of a text which demands Marland’s ‘slow reading’, a practice that Roman Bartosch and Greg Garrard identify as crucial to the ecocritical project: ‘a slow reading that conducts the student into a singular and unpredictable encounter with otherness’.48


Bartosch, Roman, and Greg Garrard, ‘The Function of Criticism: A Response to William Major and Andrew McMurry’s Editorial’, Journal of Ecocriticism 5.1 (2013), 6 pages

Baudelaire, Charles, Œuvres complètes, ed. by C. Pichois, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)

Della Rocca de Vergalo, Nicanor A., Poëtique nouvelle (Paris: Lemerre, 1880) ← 133 | 134 →

Dubus, Edouard, ‘Rythmes pittoresques, par Marie Krysinska’, Mercure de France 1.12 (1890), 443–4

Gille, Philippe, ‘Revue bibliographique’, Le Figaro (26 November 1890), 5

Krysinska, Marie, Intermèdes: nouveaux rythmes pittoresques (Paris: Vanier, 1903)

—, Joies errantes: nouveaux rythmes pittoresques (Paris: Lemerre, 1894)

—, Rythmes pittoresques, ed. by S. Whidden (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003)

Lang, Abigail, ‘De la poetry reading à la lecture publique’, in Dire la poésie? À propos des lectures publiques de poésie, ed. by J.-F. Puff (Nantes: Defaut, 2015), 205–35

Larousse, Pierre, Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, vol. 12 (Paris: Administration du Grand Dictionnaire Universel, 1874)

Marland, Pippa, ‘Ecocriticism’, Literature Compass 10.11 (2013), 846–68

Maurras, Charles, ‘Rythmes pittoresques, par Marie Krysinska’, L’Observateur français (10 November 1890), 1–2

Mendès, Catulle, Le Mouvement poétique français de 1867 à 1900 (Paris: Fasquelle, 1903)

Murat, Michel, Le Vers libre (Paris: Champion, 2008)

Puff, Jean-François, ‘La Voix off de soi-même: poétiques de la diction non-expressive (Claude Royet-Journoud et Jacques Roubaud)’, in Dire la poésie? À propos des lectures publiques de poésie, ed. by J.-F. Puff (Nantes: Defaut, 2015), 357–75

Rosny, J.-H., ‘Préface’, in M. Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques (Paris: Lemerre, 1890), vii–xi

Roubaud, Jacques, ‘Poésie et oralité’, in Dire la poésie? À propos des lectures publiques de poésie, ed. by J.-F. Puff (Nantes: Defaut, 2015), 307–18

Scholl, Aurélien, ‘Chronique parisienne’, Le Matin (18 October 1890), 1

Scott, Clive, ‘Translating the Nineteenth Century: A Poetics of Eco-Translation’, Dix-Neuf 19.3 (2015), 285–302

Whidden, Seth, ‘Sur la “supercherie” de Marie Krysinska: vers une lecture sérieuse de “Symphonie en gris”’, in Le Vers libre dans tous ses états: histoire et poétique d’une forme (1886–1914), ed. by C. Boschian-Campaner (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009), 79–88

1 Abigail Lang, ‘De la poetry reading à la lecture publique’, in Dire la poésie? À propos des lectures publiques de poésie, ed. by J.-F. Puff (Nantes: Defaut, 2015), 205–35 (226) [unreferenced translations are mine].

2 Jacques Roubaud, ‘Poésie et oralité’, in Dire la poésie? À propos des lectures publiques de poésie, ed. by J.-F. Puff (Nantes: Defaut, 2015), 307–18 (314–15).

3 Pippa Marland, ‘Ecocriticism’, Literature Compass 10.11 (2013), 846–68 (848).

4 Jean-François Puff, ‘La Voix off de soi-même: poétiques de la diction non-expressive (Claude Royet-Journoud et Jacques Roubaud)’, in Dire la poésie? À propos des lectures publiques de poésie, ed. by J.-F. Puff (Nantes: Defaut, 2015), 357–75 (367).

5 Puff, ‘La Voix off de soi-même’, 365.

6 Clive Scott, ‘Translating the Nineteenth Century: A Poetics of Eco-Translation’, Dix-Neuf 19.3 (2015), 285–302 (286).

7 Marland, ‘Ecocriticism’, 860.

8 Michel Murat, Le Vers libre (Paris: Champion, 2008), 70.

9 J.-H. Rosny, ‘Préface’, in Marie Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques (Paris: Lemerre, 1890), vii–xi (ix–x).

10 Marie Krysinska, Joies errantes: nouveaux rythmes pittoresques (Paris: Lemerre, 1894), vi–vii.

11 Marie Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, ed. by S. Whidden (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003), 39.

12 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 57; 82.

13 Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres complètes, ed. by C. Pichois, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 11.

14 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 52.

15 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 32.

16 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 54.

17 Marie Krysinska, Intermèdes: nouveaux rythmes pittoresques (Paris: Vanier, 1903), xxvi.

18 Edouard Dubus, ‘Rythmes pittoresques, par Marie Krysinska’, Mercure de France 1.12 (1890), 443–4 (443) [original italics].

19 Krysinska, Intermèdes, xii.

20 Krysinska, Intermèdes, xvii.

21 Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, vol. 12 (Paris: Administration du Grand Dictionnaire Universel, 1874), 1090–1.

22 Krysinska, Intermèdes, xvi.

23 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 36.

24 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 36.

25 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 45.

26 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 106–7.

27 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 93; 94.

28 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 95.

29 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 96.

30 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 97 [original italics].

31 Scott, ‘Translating the Nineteenth Century’, 293.

32 Murat, Le Vers libre, 228.

33 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 60.

34 Seth Whidden, ‘Sur la “supercherie” de Marie Krysinska: vers une lecture sérieuse de “Symphonie en gris”’, in Le Vers libre dans tous ses états: histoire et poétique d’une forme (1886–1914), ed. by C. Boschian-Campaner (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009), 79–88 (86).

35 Murat, Le Vers libre, 68.

36 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 111.

37 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 28.

38 Scott, ‘Translating the Nineteenth Century’, 287.

39 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 97.

40 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 100.

41 Krysinska, Rythmes pittoresques, 98.

42 Aurélien Scholl, ‘Chronique parisienne’, Le Matin (18 October 1890), 1 (1).

43 Philippe Gille, ‘Revue bibliographique’, Le Figaro (26 November 1890), 5 (5).

44 Nicanor A. Della Rocca de Vergalo, Poëtique nouvelle (Paris: Lemerre, 1880).

45 Catulle Mendès, Le Mouvement poétique français de 1867 à 1900 (Paris: Fasquelle, 1903), 152.

46 Maurras, ‘Rythmes pittoresques’, 2.

47 Marland, ‘Ecocriticism’, 848.

48 Roman Bartosch and Greg Garrard, ‘The Function of Criticism: A Response to William Major and Andrew McMurry’s Editorial’, Journal of Ecocriticism 5.1 (2013), 6 pages (2).